Sophia by Beth Allison

“So you all agree? By the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is completely broken?”

Blanche DuBois is an interesting character, but sitting in this English class makes me want to pull out my eyes with blazing pokers. They’re reading her all wrong. Yeah, you could argue that she was bat-shit crazy. You’d find plenty of evidence to back you up: stuck in the past, borderline alcoholic, a considerable candidate for some kind of psychotic illness. But really, I think she was onto something. Maybe it was everyone else that was ‘mad’; maybe she just saw her world for what it really was – bad, bitter, broken – and reacted accordingly. Logically.

I stick my hand in the air.

“Yes, Sophia?”

“I don’t entirely agree that Blanche is broken. Even at the end of the play, when the doctor intervenes to cart her off to the asylum, Williams makes it clear that she is still – partly, at least – in control.” I flip to the back of my copy of the play and scan the closing stage directions: “’She allows him to lead her as if she were blind.’ He’s not doing it to her – even then, she is allowing him. If she was completely broken, she wouldn’t be able to do that.”

“Interesting,” Miss Ashfield surveys me beneath her heavy peroxide fringe, tapping a slow drum beat on her desk with her ruby red talons. “So could you expand by saying that, by showing her as maintaining control until the very end, Williams prevents us from dismissing Blanche as insane?”

“Yes, I think so,” I reply, “as long as you’re controlling your life and you are fully aware of what you’re doing, how can you possibly be classed as mad?”

The bell sounds, triggering a mass explosion of bag packing and coat grabbing.

“Sophia?” Miss Ashfield calls over the commotion, “can I have a quick word, please?”

Christ, I should have just kept my mouth shut.

I slowly put my books in my bag, shove my arms into my jacket and make my way over to her desk as the last of the stragglers leave. She’s silent for a moment, twirling a pencil between her fingers. She crosses her short legs, her navy blazer resting against her stomach as she leans back in her chair. 61 kilos, maybe 62.

“I saw your shoot in Brown’s magazine last week – very impressive.”

I nod cautiously – is it her pre-summer resolution to keep a random student back after every lesson for a social chat?

“You’re a very talented young woman, Sophia,” she continues, eyes carefully trained on mine, “you have a lot of potential, in both academia and fashion. Based on your understanding of the year 12 texts, you will have passed your exams with flying colours. I’m sure you’re going to be a real asset to the year 13 study of Streetcar.” She pauses, taking a deep breath: “Maybe it’s not my place, but I just want to make sure you’re taking the time to look after yourself. Properly.”

Relief washes over me. We’ve been here before – maybe not with Miss Ashfield at Coleridge College, but with Miss Porter at St. Chad’s Girls Academy, and Mr Toppen before her. “How are you doing, Sophia?”; “Health comes first, Sophia”; “It’s important that you look after yourself, Sophia”; “You’re such a bright girl, Sophia, it’d be such a shame to waste it”.

I nod and smile and deliver my answer word-perfect.

“Thank you, Miss Ashfield, but I’m honestly managing just fine.”

She makes no attempt to disguise the fact that she’s studying me, her eyes raking over me like an x-ray: spindly legs lost in black skinny jeans; hip bones and ribcage drowning beneath a baggy white vest; matchstick arms buried in a woolly cardigan and hooded jacket that look ridiculously out of place next to her undoubtedly more appropriate cap-sleeved summer blazer. It’s not my fault I’m susceptible to the cold and have the circulation system of a dead fish.

“If you ever need anything – somewhere to sit, someone to talk to – I want you to know that you can come to me.”

“Thank you – I’ll be sure to remember that.”

“The summer holidays can be quite a challenging time for anyone who is experiencing or who has experienced…personal troubles. What kind of a support system do you have in place? I assume you’re still in services?”

You assume wrong, Ashfield.

“I discharged myself from services a while back, Miss, but I have a great support system. My parents are just a phone call away, and my flatmate is… well, I know I can turn to her.”

Is it a trick of the light, or are those tears filling her eyes? I shuffle my feet slightly, making a show of looking at the clock and zipping up my jacket.

“Thank you for the concern, Miss, but I really should go – I’ve got a shoot starting at 5pm.”

Her resignation resounds with her nod.

“Okay, Sophia – just know that, if there’s ever anything I can do to help, don’t hesitate to come to me.”

I mumble my thanks again and don’t look back as I walk out of the door and down the corridor on autopilot.

She’s just being nice because she has to be. She’s a teacher, it’s her job, it’s what she gets paid for. I head off campus and down the road, flashing my pass at the bus driver as I jump on the 97 into Soho. For all the stares I’m getting, walking towards a free seat on the bus feels like being on the runway. I flop down, smoothing my hair and running my hands over my coat in case I’ve missed something – chewing gum, bird poo, whatever. Nothing.

A sharp whisper stabs me from across the aisle:

“Jesus, d’you reckon she’s on hunger strike or something?”

I twist a stray curl round my fingers and fix my gaze out of the grime-smeared window. He can’t be talking about me. Must be someone else.

I haven’t taken this route into Soho for a while. Or maybe I have, but I’ve kept my head down and walked/driven blindly onwards. As we trundle past the gilded turrets of Palace Theatre, it is suddenly no longer a sunny June Thursday but a snowy November Saturday. Seven year old me is bundled up in a rich fur coat and matching Russian-style hat; white tight-clad legs stick out of the bottom, feet locked in sparkly red flats. I clutch my mother’s hand and join the throng stumbling into the matinee performance of the St. Petersburg ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. My heart flutters.

Inside, the stage comes to life with pointed toes and pink tutus and perfect pirouettes. In the interval, my mother smiles and laughs and I face the most difficult decision of any seven year old’s life – should the ice cream be chocolate, strawberry or vanilla?

Two days later, my grandma picks me up from school and I recount every dizzying detail of that magical afternoon. She gasps in the appropriate places, she laughs when I do; my grandad shuffles into the kitchen and the three of us eat freshly baked scones smeared with jam and clotted cream.

Two years later, she was dead. Two years after that, my grandad joined her. Two plus two years later, so did my mother. The mother I knew, anyway. Elizabeth Jane Hammond, PA to the stars, devoted wife of Peter Hammond and adoring mother to Sophia Emily Hammond became Effie Jay Taylor, hippy-dippy girlfriend of Stefan and a nomadic European traveller. She traded her sparkling Kensington townhouse for a battered old camper van; her crazy, self-starved daughter – who, after two hospital admissions, was as mad and bad as ever – for a brand new peachy-perfect son.

My finger jabs the button harder than is strictly necessary as we round the corner onto Tottenham Court Road. I slip past the driver and down the steps, walking so fast to the studio that I may as well be running. My heart bangs a violent tattoo against my ribs as I storm through the open doors and fly up to the third floor – stairs, not the lift.

“Ah, excellent!” A voice booms out as I clatter into the hall, “you must be Sophia – charmed, absolutely charmed.”

A strong hand grips mine and pumps it up and down, introducing a photographer, a designer and a team of stylists. They swarm down upon me – they yank my hair into place, they layer my face in make-up, they thrust set after set of clothes into my shaking arms.

“Over here in five, darling.”

I change in a back room and strut towards the screen. Standing on the X, I toss my hair over my shoulders and set my face. The lights are hot – the Sophia moth burns beneath the flame.